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No Gender Gap in Education in Middle East, London Conference Hears

Maryam Sani, a British Jamaican chemist who has worked in education in Saudi Arabia for nearly 30 years, told a conference in London that when it came to education, there was no gender gap in the Middle East.

Sani was speaking on a panel called “Creatively Closing the Gap” at the Middle East Education Thought Leadership Forum at a London hotel with 18,000 others following online.

Sani who has worked at several all-female Saudi universities said that in Saudi Arabia women were excelling more than men in the STEM subjects (science, engineering, technology and mathematics), whereas in the United Kingdom there was an attitude from the beginning that these subjects were too difficult for girls. “I went into teaching because I did not want that to be the case for girls,” she said.

Fellow panellist Rebecca Fayad, an engineering student at London’s Imperial College, said she had gone through the British education system and had been the only girl doing maths, physics, and further maths, which she found shocking.

“In the more traditional baccalaureate countries of the Middle East there would have been many more,” Fayad said. “Here (in the United Kingdom) there was an assumption that as a woman I should have studied English or geography or something ‘soft’. ‘Why don’t you do law or medicine?’ they asked, but I wanted to do engineering. To be an engineer you do not have to wear a hardhat and go to oil rigs. You can go to meetings and make processes work. In the U.K., there is an attitude of ‘I am bad at maths because I am a woman’, which is ridiculous.”

خبراء يناقشون تأثيرات «الفجوة بين الجنسين» وتحيُّز الذكاء الاصطناعي على التعليم العالي
Rebecca Fayad, an engineering student at London’s Imperial College (METLF).

Another panellist, Elena Sinel, founder of Teens in AI, which helps young people understand how to use artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies to solve real-world problems, said she had told British government representatives that in Tunisia and Morocco, women won technology competitions because the level of technology knowledge was so much higher.

Mandy Sanghera, the panel’s moderator, said lack of opportunity was not just about gender.

A British Indian philanthropist and human-rights campaigner, Sanghera said that when people came to meetings at the United Nations that she had organised, she asked them to sponsor someone in a country who could not attend.

“I want people to realise their privilege,” she said. “So much of the world is in poverty. Education is not a priority for those people, it is about getting by day to day. We need to make sure people in Africa and Latin America have opportunities.”

Conversations about AI

The forum examined artificial intelligence from many angles. Ra’ed M. Benshams, advisor for public services development for Bahrain’s Ministry of Cabinet Affairs, asked if AI was a threat because more than 50 percent of jobs could be digitalised to some degree. He answered his own question: “No, because the jobs of tomorrow may not exist today.”

The issue, he said, was, Are our systems prepared? “We need skills-driven approaches, transferable skills.” Students should be given a say in curriculum design because it improved ownership and engagement.

“I want people to realise their privilege. So much of the world is in poverty. Education is not a priority for those people, it is about getting by day to day. We need to make sure people in Africa and Latin America have opportunities.”

Mandy Sanghera, a British Indian philanthropist and human-rights campaigner

Bisher Sahiony, a Syrian Ph.D. student in artificial intelligence at Britain’s University of Surrey, spoke about ethics and fairness in artificial intelligence. He said fairness and privacy had to be entered into the algorithms used to build AI systems, and that automated decision-making systems had to be regularly checked for “algorithmic bias”. The original data these systems rely on may contain historical biases that the systems would magnify.

Adding fairness and privacy components affects the performance of an AI model, so there is always a trade-off with performance, but fairness is not optional in education, it is a necessity, Sahiony said. Privacy in AI systems is also a fundamental right especially for students whose data was often personal and sensitive.

Maryam Sani, a British Jamaican chemist who has worked in education in Saudi Arabia for nearly 30 years (METLF).

Esam Baboukhan of the British training provider Transform Education asked from the floor about political bias in generative AI. If you asked a chatbot whether Palestine should be free, it replied that it was a complex question and went into inordinate detail, he said. But if you asked whether Israel should be free, it replied, “Yes, because Israel was a sovereign country.”

Sahiony replied that it was a good example of historic bias in the data.

Moderator David Locke, chairman of Gulf Education Conferences, which organised the forum, said he felt the consensus of the forum was that artificial intelligence could bring positive developments, but that AI had no moral compass and humans needed to be in charge.

Shortage of Teachers

Ali Mansour, an Iranian Canadian tech founder and researcher, closed the forum with a warning for the audience. He said the biggest problem facing education was a worldwide shortage of teachers. There are about 60 million teachers in the world, but many are retiring and another 70 million will soon be needed.

“Every country has a problem recruiting new teachers. We are not paying them enough and politicians do not see any advantage in doing anything because it takes about two decades for the problem to be noticed,” Mansour said.

The social status of teachers used to be like that of doctors, but that is no longer the case and teachers are underpaid and demotivated, he added.

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